Knoxville Skateparks: Skating Ahead

Fountain City skatepark plans glide forward while Knoxville's park gets a one-year evaluation

Winter weather notwithstanding, January will be a big month for skateboarders in Knox County. It should see the city issue construction bids for the planned Fountain City Skate Plaza, the second of at least four planned "satellite" parks supplementing the larger, centrally located Knoxville Skatepark in Tyson Park. Meanwhile, the main park will undergo a scheduled one-year evaluation, on the cusp of the anniversary of its opening in February 2008.

The evaluation will likely result in several tweaks, both to the park's facilities and to its policies. One possible change is the implementation of an admission fee—to pay for ongoing improvements, and possibly for an attendant—though that measure doesn't appear to have support from the city.

Knoxville Parks and Recreation Director Joe Walsh announced on Dec. 5 that the city has chosen local engineering firm Cannon & Cannon to flesh out the Fountain City park's design specs—hashed out by the Fountain City Skate Plaza Task Force with some gratis help from local architect David Collins—and prepare the project for bidding.

Walsh says the Fountain City park, with $103,000 of funding, including $50,000 from the city, should break ground in March. "We'd really, really, really like to cut the ribbon and get it open before school is out on May 22," Walsh added. "So the kids have some place to go when summer starts."

The park will be set on a two-acre spread between Maple Drive and Fair Drive in Fountain City. The skate plaza itself will be 5,000 square feet (compare with nearly 20,000 for the main park at Tyson), and will include a variety of street-skating features—boxes, ramps, stairs, rails—as per the preference of local skaters.

When first announced, the Fountain City park drew murmurs of complaint from a few area residents. Walsh says planners have worked to address their concerns and those efforts seem to have allayed any lingering fears.

"We had people worried about traffic, about noise, about crime—stuff you hear any time you open a park of any kind," Walsh says. "It's understandable, but a lot of it is knee-jerk. We've moved the park further up Maple, on the commercial side of First Creek, and created a good buffer of green space. No one has called and complained in months."

With the larger Knoxville Skatepark having entered its eleventh month, Walsh says both the public and the city have been mostly pleased with its operation. It was recognized by the Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association as the state's Best New Facility in 2008. And on a nice weekend, even in cooler weather, Walsh notes that "people are lined up all over the plaza, ready to skate. It's been really well received."

Still, there have been a few persisting problems, including a lack of helmet use. The city passed an ordinance in 2008 that made skating without a helmet a misdemeanor offense punishable by a $50 city court citation, but some skaters ignore the risk.

"Litter has been one of the biggest problems," says Walsh. "We're trying to put in more trash cans, and educate the kids. Overall, we're trying to give everyone a sense of ownership: ‘Hey, this is our park.' And for the most part, I think that's what we're seeing."

"There have been some simple problems, the kind you see at most parks," says Pluto Sports owner Brian Beauchene, a longtime skater himself who led the charge for building the Knoxville Skatepark. Beauchene was also recognized by the Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association in 2008, receiving an award for Outstanding Volunteer Services.

"The problems we've had have been mostly littering, some graffiti, smoking, cussing, and some lack of helmet use," Beauchene continues. "There's also been some self-policing, which is good—some skaters who will come in with black spray paint to spray over the graffiti. And we've had one group come in on Sunday nights to pick up litter."

The park's one-year evaluation will include plans for touch-ups, such as repair for hairline cracks in the concrete. Also on the agenda will be planned Phase II improvements, which call for new streetscape obstacles on the outskirts of the park, and increased accommodations for parents and onlookers.

Policy-wise, some of the community's older skaters have suggested the possibility of implementing an admission fee, which could help pay for an attendant to monitor helmet use and behavior. Beauchene notes that several cities charge admission at their public skateparks—usually in the $2 to $6 range for one-day admittance, with monthly and annual available at a lower rate.

Knoxville Skate Park Task Force member Jason Oaks has two children—13-year-old Cal and 7-year-old Gillian—who enjoy using the park, sometimes two and three times a week. And though Oaks, a skater himself, gives the park high marks for its first year, he now supports hiring an attendant and implementing a fee.

"I was against it at first," he says. "But when we visited some parks down in Atlanta, the nicest one we saw had an attendant, and a $3 admission for locals. Nobody went without a helmet, and if somebody fell, they were right there. I'm in favor of ‘pay to play.'"

Walsh, for his part, favors keeping the park free to all comers. "I don't feel very strongly about [having an admission charge] since we built it with the idea of having a free skate park," he says. "The idea was tossed out there, and I'm sure we'll bring it up. But it's too early to call."